July 8, 2006
By MATT BURGARD And TINA A. BROWN, Courant Staff Writers
His eyes welling with tears and his head hung low, Hartford police Officer Robert Lawlor sat in his lawyer's office on a sunny afternoon in May and spoke about the despair that has gripped him since he shot and killed a teenager in a dark parking lot in the city's North End last year.
The fatal shooting of 18-year-old Jashon Bryant, he said, has shaken him so badly that he still replays the incident in his head every day, and needs to take medication to keep his nerves in check.
Two days later, Lawlor showed up at a ceremony to celebrate the promotion of several Hartford police supervisors, attended by Mayor Eddie A. Perez. Just a week earlier, the mayor had said Lawlor should be arrested as soon as possible after a prosecutor released a grand jury report concluding that Bryant's shooting had not been justified.
Lawlor brashly walked up to Perez, interrupting an interview with a reporter, reached out to shake hands with the mayor and thanked him for his "support."
The two episodes, so contradictory, raise a question others have asked about the 18-year veteran:
Who exactly is the real Bob Lawlor?
To some he's a hard-charging cop who relentlessly pursues the bad guys on the street, even at the expense of his own personal life. To others, he's a renegade, unwilling to play by the rules that don't suit him and all too ready to defy those above him.
His arrest on charges of first-degree manslaughter and first-degree assault made Lawlor the second police officer in Connecticut to be charged in connection with an on-duty fatal shooting. Lawlor has said he believes Bryant was armed.
Like other moments in Lawlor's career, the shooting can be seen in starkly different ways. The night Bryant died, was Lawlor - as many supporters claim - a hard-working officer trying his best to get guns off the street looking out for himself and his partner?
Or was he - as the young man's family believes - acting too quickly, without thinking?
A look at Lawlor's personnel records, as well as interviews with several officers who have worked with him, paints a picture of an officer so motivated and passionate for police work that he was known as "Robocop." Since joining the force in 1987, Lawlor has received 20 written commendations, many from other law enforcement agencies he has assisted.
In January 2004 he received a commendation from Kevin O'Connor, the U.S. attorney for Connecticut, after Lawlor helped the FBI crack down on a drug operation in the North End that had contributed to a murder near a school.
The crackdown led to the conviction of two men responsible for shooting and killing a man in broad daylight on Farmington Avenue in 2001, O'Connor said in his letter. In particular, O'Connor said, Lawlor played a key role in helping investigators find a vantage point from which they could watch the drug operation without being noticed.
To do that, Lawlor said, he hung out in an abandoned house on Edgewood Street, where he and other detectives spent 39 straight days watching the local drug trade from a perch on the third floor.
"Those guys were always looking to the left and the right whenever they were looking out for us, but they never looked up," he said. "We were so close we could see the lines on their hands when they sold their crack."
Lawlor made a name for himself during the 1990s, when the city was gripped by violent turf wars between street gangs such as Los Solidos, 20 Love and the Latin Kings.
"He was just highly aggressive and highly motivated," said Stan Wasilewski, a retired cop who worked with Lawlor on the gang task force. "He was one of those guys who would climb a tree if he thought it was the best way to put someone under surveillance."
Wasilewski said Lawlor also was admired for his ability to get people on the street to talk to him. He was able to infiltrate the hierarchy of the gangs, developing intelligence that helped police head off clashes and confrontations.
"He just had a way of talking to people, getting them comfortable," he said. "If some guy was kind of quiet or not telling us anything, Bob would offer the guy a soda or a cigarette, just sit there until the guy opened up."
Wasilewski said Lawlor was widely admired for his seemingly bottomless reservoir of energy. After a day on which detectives spent 12 hours or more rounding up gang members or acquiring intelligence on gang activities, most detectives would be eager to go home and get some sleep, he said.
But often, he said, Lawlor would get a phone call from a top-ranking gang member alerting him to the latest gang meeting or confrontation, and Lawlor would act as though he'd just punched in for the day.
The frantic pace he kept also damaged his marriage and contributed to some of the dark chapters in his career. Lawlor, 42, is in the middle of a divorce with his wife, Lynn. They have four girls.
"There comes a point where you can't come home and type out arrest warrants and still be a good husband and father," he said in a recent interview.
The Other Lawlor
Despite the commendations and plaudits that came his way, Lawlor had moments of job-related trouble.
He's been investigated for a 1990 on-duty shooting in which a 15-year-old boy was wounded. He's been named in separate lawsuits accusing him of harassing a fellow detective and for causing an on-the-job motor vehicle accident in which several officers were injured. And he's been punished for failing to prepare for a court case in which a drug suspect was allowed to walk.
But a look at Lawlor's personnel record shows that, for the most part, very little came of the allegations that have been lodged against him. He was cleared in the 1990 shooting; he was not found to be personally liable in the harassment suit; and the city settled the legal action surrounding the accident.
In a recent interview, he proudly pointed out that he has never received a citizen complaint accusing him of using excessive force.
The only disciplinary action in his personnel file is a three-day suspension in 1994 that came when a prosecutor in a drug case found that Lawlor's version of the facts was inconsistent with that of other officers in the case. The inconsistency forced the prosecutor to drop the charges conditionally against the defendant, who was believed to be a significant player in the local drug trade.
"As you are aware, our cases very often stand and fall on testimony and credibility of police officers," Hartford State's Attorney James E. Thomas wrote in a letter to then-Chief Joseph Croughwell.
Lawlor said he made a mistake because of the long hours he was keeping at the time.
"My feeling was, I was a big boy, a police officer. I didn't fight anything because, at the end of the day, Chief Croughwell said, `Bob, you improperly prepared for court testimony.' And he was right," Lawlor said.
"I paid my dues and I moved on, but it's interesting how we're now in 2006 and we're still talking about this."
For all his successes as an officer, Lawlor has nonetheless managed to rankle some of the people he has worked for. Wasilewski said Lawlor was known for irritating his supervisors by challenging their orders or following up on leads without their approval.
Lawlor, in fact, admitted there has been friction between him and many of his supervisors, especially in the detective bureaus.
But he said that was more about jealousy on the part of his peers - and an unwillingness on the part of his bosses to hold other detectives to higher standards. Calling himself a "shining star" in the department, Lawlor said his bosses resented his obvious skills, as well as his close relationship with Croughwell.
"If you're a boss, is it easier to bring Bobby Lawlor down or is it easier to take 40 other officers and bring them up to my level?" he said. "I've had problems with supervisors because ... I fight for the little guy and I know policy and procedure better than the supervisors."
Lawlor now finds himself feuding with more than just his bosses.
The Bryant shooting has placed him at the epicenter of long-running tensions between the police department and many of the city's residents, especially African Americans.
For a while, it looked as if there might be a chance to try to heal those divisions. After the grand jury concluded the shooting was not justified, community activists and members of Bryant's family said they were encouraged. Lawlor offered to meet with Bryant's family to express his own grief.
But those opportunities faded as Bryant's family became increasingly angry at what they perceived as special treatment given to Lawlor. In particular, family members were incensed that Lawlor was allowed to post $50,000 bail after his arrest, an amount they felt was too low for the charges he faces.
Lawlor, who has been suspended from the force without pay pending the outcome of the case, also finds himself feuding with the mayor.
After the encounter with Perez at the police promotion ceremony, a photo of Lawlor and the mayor was posted on a website that has been set up to help secure donations to help defray legal fees. When members of the mayor's staff saw the photo, they asked Lawlor to remove Perez's image from the website.
The response was a red balloon covering the mayor's face with the word "Censored!" written over it. Underneath, a caption reads, "Ah Mr. Mayor! ... Why are you distancing yourself from this issue of justice and due process?"
Lawlor recently said he had no regrets about his confrontation with the mayor at the promotion ceremony.
"I was obligated to go up and talk to the mayor because of the disservice he had done, not only to me and the 400-plus members of this department, but to the people of Hartford," he said. "Because what he has done is create a gun-shy police department."
On Wednesday the opportunities for healing faded further when Lawlor made his first court appearance in the criminal case against him. Outside the Superior Court building in Hartford, more than 30 of Bryant's relatives confronted Lawlor as he walked to the entrance. Bryant's father, Keith Thomas, had to be restrained by other family members as he lunged toward the officer.
After his appearance, Lawlor was surrounded by a phalanx of fellow officers. Many family members shouted "murderer!" at him.
Now both sides are talking even tougher than ever.
Lawlor's supporters continue to grow more vocal in backing him. His lawyer, Michael Georgetti, has said that outgoing Chief Patrick Harnett had often told Lawlor he was doing "God's work" the night of the shooting.
And Lawlor's girlfriend, fellow Hartford Officer Stephanie Whitehead, wrote on his website that she has seen first-hand the impact the shooting has had on him.
"I'm the one who has to wake him up from his nightmares," she said. "I'm the one who holds him when he cries about what happened."
But Bryant's family members and the community activists following the case believe Lawlor needs to remind himself what this is all about.
"This is an 18-year-old boy who lost his life," said Andrea Comer, a city school board member and longtime activist. "Jashon's not coming back, no matter what happens to Lawlor. That's why this is so painful."
Lawlor says he is confident that he ultimately will be vindicated by a jury, but the arrest has shaken his confidence in the criminal justice system.
"What I've learned is that the grand jury system is a farce," he said. "I'm in the fight of my life."
Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant.
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